It Was 20 Years Ago Today Part One: Getting In

During the hectic pace of Spring, I neglected to realize as it passed that May marked 20 years since I convocated from Sheridan College’s Advanced Illustration program. As depressing as it is to realize just how old I am getting, these sorts of anniversaries are a good excuse to look back on the very earliest days of my career. So settle in, here comes the whole story, to the best of my fuzzy memory.

Hurdles and Slides

To begin with, I wasn’t even supposed to be there. Toward the end of my time at the University of Saskatchewan, I had applied to Sheridan College’s postgraduate Advanced Illustration program. Even getting my application together was something of a miracle.

First, you were required to get a letter of recommendation from a former instructor. First I asked my most recent professor, who that year had instructed me in both life drawing and painting classes. He flat out told me—word for word—that I’d “never get in”, and declined to write the letter. Thankfully, the second professor I asked, Bart Gazzola wrote me an enthusiastic letter of recommendation, something for which I’ll always be grateful.

I don’t know how portfolio reviews go now, but back in 2002 you had to provide the assessors with actual photographic slides of your work, and I had no idea how to go about getting those made. As with the recommendation letter, the first person I tried—in this case a family member with a photography studio—refused to help. But we eventually found a studio in the city who would create the slides of my work. Problem solved.

The other problem? You had to have work that was worth sending! My portfolio at the time was incredibly thin, and bizarrely themeless. I had very little work I felt worth sharing from my University courses (which had primarily been life-drawing based), so the bulk of the slides were paintings from four years earlier in High School. I don’t have scans of of them, but I did find a few, including an ink portrait of Tom Hanks…

Remember when Tom Hanks had a 50’s greaser pompadour?

a creaky acrylic painting of what appears to be Sandra Bullock (?)…

Who could forget “In Love and War”, other than the entire planet?

and a pencil crayon recreation of Jeff Smith’s “Bone” sweeping the floor with a paper bag hat.

Not exactly setting the artistic world on fire with my conceptual originality. Unsurprisingly, my application to the most prestigious art college in Canada was waitlisted. Honestly, looking at the work now, it’s a marvel I wasn’t rejected outright.

In other words, maybe the professor who said I wouldn’t get in was right?

Vancouver Bound?

Having been waitlisted at Sheridan, I applied to Vancouver Film School, and got accepted*, but then discovered the wrinkle that I was short a single class credit from convocating at the University of Saskatchewan. This necessited taking a summer session drama class, so I’d miss the September enrolment at VFS, deferring my start there until January. I never took a gap year, so even having a few months’ break between finishing at the University of Saskatchewan in September, and attending VFS in January sounded great to me.

With two weeks left in August, I got a strange call from the Sheridan admissions department, requesting that I send them some additional samples of my work, specifically work that focused on life drawing skills.

As luck would have it, the model wore black bars that day. What a break!

Having filled mountains of newsprint pads with life drawings at the U of S, I sent off a handful of the better ones (this time we were allowed to send scans digitally) with a shrug, still thinking the plan was Vancouver in January 2003. Instead, with only two weeks before the start of the fall session, I was suddenly off the waitlist and found myself accepted into Sheridan’s Advanced Illustration program—for September 2002. This meant a whirlwind of activity, requiring me to completely upend my Saskatoon life in a week’s time—I needed to write my Drama final, finish repairing my parents’ roof, quit my job and generally get my mind around this enormous deviation from the January plan. This boy from Smallville was headed for Metropolis.

30 Hours to Tomorrow

As we had no vehicle that would survive such a long trip, we rented a car, and my Mom and my elder sister drove with me across Canada to Oakville, Ontario. We left in the wee hours of the morning, and drove 20 hours on that first day. We made it to Winnipeg by lunchtime, and finally stopped driving very late into the night. We wearily checked into a motel with a view of the Famous Wawa Goose, having made it all the way to Ontario.

The second day was only half as much driving, but still felt endless, though the scenery in Ontario was like nothing I’d ever seen growing up on the prairies. After nine hours we made it to Oakville, checking into an even dingier motel.

We immediately set about looking for a place for me to live, realizing that with school starting in days, we might not have the luxury of being choosy. We found an ad in the paper for a basement suite within walking distance to Sheridan’s Trafalgar campus. This ad was accurate in the way that, technically, the Bering land bridge meant that Asia was also within walking distance of North America. But, we took it anyway. The house was in one of the posher neighbourhoods of Oakville (which is already pretty posh to begin with). I’d be sharing a living space with kitchen, laundry and bathroom with two other guys (more on them later), but I had my own (windowless, illegal) bedroom, equipped with a drawing table, which was all I really needed (so long as a fire didn’t break out). The home also had a lavish pool, which I never used, even once.

My mom and sister and I spent the next day outfitting me with everything else I’d need to live, as I’d come with only my clothes and the tiny TV/VCR from my bedroom in Saskatoon. We splurged that night with a supper at Outback Steakhouse (a chain we still don’t have in Saskatoon). My family drove back to Saskatoon the next day, without me.

No Money, Mo Problems

A disclaimer: I am grateful for student loans. My entire university and post-graduate academic career was funded almost entirely by student loans, and I wouldn’t have the education or career I have now without the aid they provided. That said, Saskatchewan Student Loans sure made my life difficult in art college.

While there have been plenty of Saskatchewan artists to get into Sheridan College, before me, and after me; no one from Saskatchewan had ever been accepted into their Advanced Illustration program before I was. You might assume being the first student accepted into their post-graduate program came with some kind of honour or distinction attached to it, but you’d be wrong. Instead, all it meant was that Saskatchewan Student Loans wasn’t entirely convinced that it was a real course, since no one had ever applied to it before. This meant that they withheld my funding until I provided them with letters and syllabi from each of my instructors, assuring them that I was a real student in a real class at a real college and not, I don’t know, scamming them out of thousands of dollars. It was more than a little embarrassing, but I needed to do it in order to stay at school.

The other hassle I ran into with student loans was in the way tuition was collected province to province. In Saskatchewan, tuition was collected by semester, and so that’s how they structured the loan program—student loans released the funding in two increments, one for each semester. Unfortunately for me, and me alone, Sheridan required the payment for my entire year’s worth of classes, right at the beginning of the year. Once again, despite the difficulty it caused me, Saskatchewan Student Loans was immovable, and released the funds only by semester. This meant I had to pool the funds meant to cover my tuition and living expenses for a single semester, and allocate all of it to my tuition, right off the bat. I had my school paid for, but it meant things were very very lean for me that first semester. Thanks to the generosity of my parents, I had enough each month to cover my rent at the suite, but not enough for a bus pass, or basically any extras.

I’ll never forget the kindness of an employee in Sheridan’s financial department. She’d gotten quite familiar with me those first few weeks of school as we tried to bridge the gap between the differing funding structures. As she worked with me on transmitting my proof of enrolment, she very quietly asked. “are you eating?”. I told her I was, but something in the way I responded must have betrayed the direness of my first semester finances. Wordlessly, she slid gift cards for Loblaws groceries across the desk, and continued filing her papers. It was difficult at the time to accept such charity, but man, did it ever make a huge difference.

Getting There

My suite was over an hour’s walk to campus, but a much more manageable 35 minutes by bike, or so I thought. For weeks, I painstakingly drove around the enormous wooded area of Nipigon Trail and Oakville park, thinking the same route I’d driven on would be the most direct method. Then, after class one day at the end of the week, I noticed an opening to a path into the woods and on a lark decided to see where it went.

When I first came upon this ledge going full speed, I thought it was a cliff! I yanked the wheel over to the left down a hill and survived to tell the tale.
This is what’s on the other side, so even going down the stairs wasn’t too steep. But I didn’t know that!

Following the trail through Oakville Park, then switching to the trail along Munn’s Creek, the path spit me out on Crosstown Trail, which was just a few blocks from the house!

Look, you think it’s easy taking pictures with a 110 camera while you’re speeding through the woods?

The whole route took me only about 17 minutes (which, by the time I graduated, I’d shaved down to just 11 minutes!) making me very glad I’d taken the chance to explore.

How glad? So glad.

That was one of many lessons I’d learn that year, which I’ll unpack in another post.

I have quite a few posts lined up in the next few weeks, finishing up my art school reverie, but also reviewing my time at SaskExpo Saskatoon and at the Vancouver Comic Arts Festival. So stick with me, lots of stories and art coming. Thanks for reading, I love you.

*This was before I realized that EVERYONE gets in when they apply to Vancouver Film School. I kid, I kid!